Although my tastes have changed a lot since I was a child, meatloaf has always remained in my (very carefully curated) list of top ten favourite dishes. My mum used to make it occasionally as a reasonably fancy Thursday or Friday night meal, serving it with potato salad or buttery mash depending on what the weather dictated. Although it was very definitely a ‘treat dinner’ in our house, we’d never manage to finish it all in one go, because it was huge and we were small, but it was just as good unpacked from its tin foil and cut into wedges for lunch the next day.
It was a highly uncommon dish in Ireland in the 1990s, and to this day I’ve never seen it served in any Irish or British restaurant. I suppose it is a fairly homely sort of meal option, and a very American one at that, hence why so few people on this side of the Atlantic are familiar with it.
In fact, the only reason I grew up with it is that my mum encountered it as a teenager when she was on a year-long exchange trip in Tennessee and brought the recipe home with her, along with a broad array of other American comfort food classics, like buttermilk cornbread and the rather ingloriously named but surprisingly delicious ‘Hellzapoppin Cheese Rice’, which all still regularly show up for dinner at our house.
So, given that most people are not that familiar with what a meatloaf is when it’s at home, here is a brief primer. Most meatloaves are made with a mix of beef and pork or veal mince and tend to include onion, whether gently fried or added to the mixture raw. Many have an undercurrent of tomato flavour in some form; lots include cheese. Some include bread and milk or egg, but I’ve never found these necessary. All are seasoned well with black pepper, herbs and a decent pinch of salt. After a good bit of stirring, the mixture is formed tightly into some kind of shape (a rectangle, a circle, a fillet shape; whatever you fancy) and baked in the oven till cooked through. Easy.
But this is not an entry-level meatloaf. This is a fancier, showier meatloaf that could be very easily be served as a dinner party dish or for a big family lunch; it’s an in-at-the-deep-end, not-your-mother’s meatloaf, so to speak. However, while it is fabulously impressive in all its delicious pancetta wrapped, beautifully burnished glory, it is also a hugely accessible way to do a roast for a large number of people. Because it’s mainly made with pork mince & mushrooms, it’s tremendously good value, and it’s far easier to make than you would think. If you’re hosting a big crowd, just double the recipe below and make it in a very large baking dish.
PANCETTA WRAPPED MUSHROOM, MOZZARELLA & SAGE MEATLOAF
I’ve broken from convention by switching up the usual beef-and-another-type-of-mince base for pork mince mixed with mushrooms. I’ve also added fresh mozzarella to give it a gorgeously oozing texture and lots of sage and other herbs for a beautifully rich flavour.
Serves 4-6 depending on how hungry or greedy your guests are; double or triple quantities as necessary
500g 10% fat pork mince
300g of chestnut mushrooms (or other exotic variety)
1 medium sized onion
2 cloves of garlic, peeled & diced
1 ball of regular mozzarella, drained & diced
1 inch piece of parmesan, grated
Handful of fresh sage, parsley & thyme leaves, diced, plus extra sage leaves to garnish
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
Pinch of fennel seed
2 tablespoons of tomato chutney
8 large cherry tomatoes
1 packet of thin pancetta slices (around 24 slices will be needed)
Dash of olive oil
1 teaspoon of salt
Preheat your oven to 220°c. Peel and finely dice the onion and fry in the olive oil over a medium heat till golden. Clean and finely dice the mushrooms and add to the pan. Chop the thyme and add to the mushrooms along with the garlic, some black pepper and the fennel seed. After five minutes, remove the pan from the heat. Place the pork mince in a large bowl and add the tomato paste, the mozzarella pieces, the parmesan, the mushroom mix, the salt, more black pepper and the remaining herbs. Use your hands to combine the mixture thoroughly then set aside. Line a baking dish with baking paper and lay the bacon strips side by side in two tight lines of 12 so that the middle third sections of each set of two slices is overlapping (see the guide picture above). There should be no gaps in the rows. If a slice breaks slightly as you place it down, be sure to use a strong, full slice for the opposite side. Place the meatloaf mixture down the centre of bacon slices, so that it is sitting over the double layer in the middle. Pack it down tightly so that it’s very compact. Bring the pancetta slices up and over the meatloaf, pulling upwards slightly to secure the roll tightly then interlocking them tightly at opposing 45 degree angles so that they look somewhat plaited, like a grain of wheat. Place the tomatoes around the meatloaf. Bake for 50 minutes, or until cooked through – use a meat thermometer to check – basting the meatloaf with the juices once during cooking. Remove the tomatoes from the cooking liquid and keep warm. Drain away the excess cooking liquid, reserving 1 tablespoon for the glaze. Mix this with the chutney and brush over the pancetta slices. Top with the remaining sage leaves and serve piping hot with creamy mashed potatoes, green beans and the squidgy tomatoes. Any leftovers will keep for two days in the fridge.